POWs' captivity, survival seen through Open Doors
Story Number: usna040212-05
By JO3(SW/AW)Lacy Montgomery
The Naval Academy Museum is currently displaying "Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later," still photo essays of 30 former prisoners of war and what they're doing 30 years later.
The exhibit will travel to museums across the country in 2003 and 2004. The "Open Doors" exhibit even traveled to sea with USS Boxer (LHD 4) for one day to mark National POW-MIA Recognition Day Sept. 20. The exhibit has received national media coverage since the August opening.
The goal of writer Taylor B. Kiland and photographer Jamie H. Quinn was to capture the subjects' personalities with visual images and written profiles that add verbal color, context and quotes.
Separately, the profile and photo give the observer a glimpse of a man. Together, they give insight into how he ticks, how he thinks and how he lives.
Both the title and logo for this exhibit evolved from the POWs themselves. Retired Capt. John Michael McGrath designed the exhibit's door logo. "If I were to have one open door in my prison experience, it would be the door for my cell in Thunderbird Hanoi Hilton, Hanoi," wrote McGrath in an artist's statement he sent to Kiland and Quinn when he finished the logo.
The exhibit title came from a statement made by retired Cmdr. Paul Edward Galanti in a documentary. "There was no such thing as a bad day when you have a door knob on the inside of the door."
Retired Capt. John H. "Jack" Fellowes, Class of '56 and a former POW featured in the exhibit, visited the museum Oct. 17.
Coming out of high school just a mediocre student, Fellowes was told he would never make it at the Naval Academy and was refused recommendation by his school guidance counselor.
Knowing he was "headed nowhere and getting there fast," Fellowes decided to get a new start and enlisted in the Navy as an airmen apprentice Aug. 27, 1951. A little less than a year later, he entered the academy as a midshipman. He graduated in 1956.
Fellowes was a pilot assigned to Attack Squadron 65 onboard USS Constellation (CV 64). On Aug. 27, 1966, he and his bombardier/navigator, Lt. j.g. George T. Coker, launched in their A6A Intruder all-weather attack aircraft on a strike/bombing mission into North Vietnam.
When the flight was about 20 miles northwest of the city of Vinh in Nghe An Province, Fellowes' aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire or debris from a surface-to-air missile in the right wing which caused the aircraft to enter a flat spin, forcing both crewmen to eject.
"I was hit while flying at about 2,500 feet," said Fellowes. "The aircraft immediately inverted, the stick was frozen and we were bouncing wildly. I later learned that the wing had been blown off. While still inverted as the plane was falling, Coker and I ejected.
"Coker landed in a rice patty and I landed about 20 feet from him in small village.
"I felt a strong jolt as I struck earth. It was later that I learned that I had suffered a compression fracture in my back, several vertebrae had been pushed together.
"As I started to get up, I saw about 100 people running toward us with AK-47s.
"It was lunchtime, so I thought I was the guest of honor. Instead, I became the main course," Fellowes said with a smile, displaying the sense of humor that helped him survive the six years and seven months as a prisoner of war.
During their captivity, Coker and Fellowes suffered mental and physical torment along with the other 679 POWs. Torture and deprivation was commonplace. Both of Fellowes' arms were broken, causing him to be incapacitated for four months and resulting in permanent damage, by manipulation in the "ropes," a common torture technique. Coker actually escaped in December 1970 with another American. The two swam down the Red River, but were recaptured.
While in captivity the group found ways to survive as a team.
"We made up a tap code as a means to communicate," Fellowes explained. "A was one tap where Z was 26 taps. We were able to get messages to each other and the guards never caught on."
Though they were frequently persecuted, the group never lost the desire to learn.
"When we were in a large room together we would often hold classes. We learned everything from meat cutting to chemistry," said Fellowes.
Although they were locked in a prison on the other side of the world, they still managed to cheer on Navy during the annual Army-Navy football game.
"I have always been a sports nut. I would recall the entire line-up for both teams and then recall the plays," he explained. Though Navy may not have scored quite as well on the football field as they did in Fellowes' "sideline commentation" to his fellow prisoners, he said he refuses to find out the real scores. In his mind Navy won 27-8 from 1966 until 1972.
Humor was an important tool to surviving the years of torture and solitude.
"If we could laugh for 20 minutes, that was 20 minutes we weren't thinking about where we were and how we were being treated," said Fellowes.
When the time came for the prisoners to be released, it came with little pomp or commotion from the guards.
"We were given razors two days a week to shave," said Fellowes. "One day, out of the schedule, the guards just walked in and told everyone to shave. We knew something was going on, but we weren't sure what. Two days later, we went home."
After recovering from his wounds Fellowes continued his 30-year Navy career.
He retired from the Navy as a captain in July 1986.
Though he has been retired for 17 years, Fellowes still hasn't stopped working.
Living in Annapolis, Fellowes works at the Maryland State Legislature, as liquor inspector, and auxiliary policeman and as a judge in county elections. He also speaks to capstone and leadership classes at the Naval Academy.